After a high-stakes courtship by both candidates aimed at luring the pivotal black vote, millionaire businessman Willie Wilson has decided to endorse Jesus “Chuy” Garcia over Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the April 7 runoff.
Wilson said he made the decision, as first reported on chicago.suntimes.com, based on the feedback he got from literally hundreds, if not thousands, of his supporters through emails, phone calls and his extensive network of black churches.
He’s also held “three-to-five” private meetings with both Emanuel and Garcia to press his demands for both candidates to reopen at least some of the record 50 schools that Emanuel closed, eliminate red-light cameras and establish “fairness” in the awarding of city jobs and contracts.
Wilson has scheduled a news conference to announce his decision. But on Wednesday, he informed both campaigns of his decision to go with Garcia then explained the reasons in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Those red-light cameras on the backs of the poor. Eliminating 50 of them was not enough. They want `em all gone. Not enough fairness in terms of contracts and jobs. And the school [closing] situation is a dagger. The school situation is a major, major, major, major,” Wilson said.
“Kids walking through gang territory 2 and 3 miles to get to new schools. Eighty-eight percent of them were in the African-American community. They felt that was wrong. They felt he totally ignored the community when they’re the ones who put him in office.”
Wilson finished third in the Feb. 24 election with 10.6 percent of the votes cast. But his 50,960 votes represented 21.9 percent of the vote in predominantly black wards.
That’s why both candidates beat a path to the door of his downtown penthouse.
Wilson, who has milked the courtship for all it’s worth, said he has no doubt that the man he endorses will be the next mayor of Chicago.
“I’ve been told whichever way I go, [his supporters will go]. They’re waiting on me. It will be the tipping point. No doubt about it. This is the first time in history it’s ever happened,” he said.
Wilson said he and Garcia have not yet determined what role Wilson will play in the final weeks of the campaign. But after spending $2 million of his fortune on the race, one thing Wilson will not be doing is digging even deeper into his own pocket for Garcia.
“He promised to get rid of the red-light cameras. He promised equal opportunity for jobs and contracts. He promised to be fair and honest. I will have a direct line to him to advise him on some things,” Wilson said.
“What we have not agreed to yet is churches or TV commercials. I’ve told him, `I’m here if you want me to help.’ It’s up to him. But he has three debates to get through. The person who’s on top today can be down tomorrow if they say the wrong thing. But I do not intend to give him any money. I’ve spent enough money on my own campaign. He should be giving me money. But I haven’t asked for anything for myself.”
Hours before Wilson informed the Emanuel campaign of his decision to go with Garcia, the mayor was asked how important Wilson’s endorsement was to his efforts to boost his support among black voters who helped put him in office, but soured on him after the school closings.
“I believe the most important thing I have to do is go out and earn people’s support,” the mayor said.
“Yesterday, I talked about paving roads, filling potholes. Other people talked about political endorsements. Today, we’re talking about bringing jobs and economic opportunity throughout the city, and other people are talking about political support. The most important thing is to have a vision, the strength and determination to see something through, so we can build a vibrant economy. That’s what people are going to evaluate us on.”
Last week, the City Council’s Black Caucus met with Wilson and tried to go to bat for Emanuel.
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the Black Caucus, said then that he and his colleagues told Wilson that solutions to the city’s vexing problems are “more complicated” than a simplistic, slogan-filled campaign commercial.
“It’s been a sound bite: red-light cameras, 50 school closings. But the one school that did close in my ward is literally two blocks away from three other schools in either direction, and kids were passing underserved schools to get to that school,” said Brookins, who served on the Emanuel-appointed school-closing commission that held public hearings across the city.
“We have lost 193,000 black folks. It’s not as though you did this because I’m black. You did this because of all of these factors. Loss of kids. Schools out of date. It would cost more to get them to modern standards than it would to tear them down. That story is not told. When you ask people, `Which one of those 50 schools did you want to send your kids to? Tell me the school. We’ll reopen it, then you can send your kids to that school,’ you don’t get an answer.”
The arguments apparently fell on deaf ears.
Wilson is a former McDonald’s franchise holder who has built a thriving medical-supply business into a $60 million fortune. He has built a strong following by donating millions to black churches and hosting a weekly gospel music television show, “Singsation.”
Wilson has accused Emanuel of trying to disenfranchise black voters by challenging Wilson’s nominating petitions, before dropping the challenge when it became clear that Wilson would surpass the threshold of 12,500 signatures.
The question now is whether Wilson’s endorsement — coupled with those of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones (D-Chicago) will help Garcia boost his share of the African-American vote from 24.5 percent and build the multiracial coalition he needs to win.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), who got 62.4 percent of the vote and easily avoided a runoff with help from a pro-Emanuel super PAC, argued that Wilson’s endorsement of Garcia will mean absolutely nothing.
“He spent $2 million of his own money. That did get him some votes. But you have to remember he’s never held elective office. He’s never been involved in any level of government. I don’t think his endorsement is gonna have any impact at all,” Beale said.
“The momentum was in the primary, when people were upset and rightfully so. There were things done that were not right. But the next election is gonna be based on substance — not on who somebody else is supporting. They’re gonna look at the issues and see clearly that Chuy does not have substance. We need very strong, capable and competent leadership. Otherwise, we’re headed to disaster. The city will be in dire trouble.”
Referring to Garcia, Beale said, “You’re talking about a person who doesn’t have any answers. He’ll say anything without anything to back it up. He says he’ll hire 1,000 police officers. How’s he gonna pay for that? He says he’ll remove all of the red-light cameras, instead of reforming the system. How’s he gonna replace that revenue? You can’t just keep saying things to garner votes just because they’re popular. People are gonna see right through that and find out there’s no substance.”
Emanuel campaign spokesman Steve Mayberry sounded a similar refrain.“Chicago must face incredible challenges during the next four years ,and Mayor Emanuel thanks Willie Wilson for bringing an important perspective to the discussion during the last election,” Mayberry said in an emailed statement.
“However, we can only hope that Chuy Garcia shared his plans for the City of Chicago with Dr. Wilson in private because thus far he has refused to disclose publicly to the voters how he intends to fund the hundreds of millions of dollars in spending promises he has made during this campaign.”
Four years ago, Emanuel got 58 percent of the African-American vote and captured every black ward on the strength of President Barack Obama’s tacit endorsement of his former White House chief of staff.
On Feb. 24, the mayor got just 42 percent of a much smaller pie. An 11th-hour, in-person endorsement from Obama was not enough to get Emanuel over the finish line and avoid Chicago’s first-ever mayoral runoff.
Now that Wilson has endorsed Garcia, Emanuel must rely on all of the traditional means — group meetings, robocalls, direct mail, radio and television — to boost black turnout and get more than 50 percent of that vote.
He also plans to use black ministers, elected officials and business leaders to carry his message.